Long Shot: Filmmakers Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores are preparing to shoot their first feature-length film, Long Cut.
Young Petaluma filmmakers are serious about making honest pictures
By David Templeton
THAT'S WHERE we write," filmmaker Mitchell Altieri nods, smiles, and shrugs all at once. "If one of us needs to get away and just focus on being creative, on writing the script or whatever, that's where we stay, pretty much for as long as necessary."
A fine gray mist has begun to fall, quietly drenching the tidy, nondescript house that headquarters the fledgling American White Horse Pictures offices near downtown Petaluma. Altieri, standing out on the slick steps, is pointing to a small camping trailer parked uphill from the garage. Perched several yards up the glistening green hillside, the lonely, inconsequential-looking edifice is, in fact, a vital piece of American White Horse's filmmaking operation.
Inside the garage, an enormous sign stands leaning against the wall. Only half-painted, it bears the lightly sketched outline of what Altieri hopes will become a symbol of cinematic integrity, the American White Horse logo, along with the whimsical but sincere motto, "Honest Pictures Made."
Inside the house stands a two-man reception line--Altieri's partners Phil Flores and Jerry Moore. They've set out coffee and cookies in the spacious, wood-floored living room, with walls displaying posters from past film projects, primarily docudramas.
Just finishing production on a fictional documentary of the late jazz trumpeter Chet Baker titled Porches of the Industrial City, this trio are now in pre-production on their first feature-length film--a low-budget, independently produced drama titled Long Cut, set to begin shooting next May. Altieri's first film, King's River, based on a short story he penned and produced for public television when he was just 19, earned him a Bay Area Cable Excellence award.
A writer with a firm commitment to chronicling the tough streets of his childhood, Altieri supports his filmmaking endeavors through a text and photographic collaboration with another artist, the two scouring South San Francisco's mean streets to capture the stories and faces of the youth living there. Their work has caused Levi's to offer an option on the images to sell jeans, and San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art is meeting with the two to discuss exhibiting the visual and written work.
Though their ages place them firmly within the so-called Generation-X demographic, Altieri, Flores, and Moore stand counter to the stereotype of nihilistic, cynical youths yammering about the death of optimism. As they describe their upcoming project, it becomes clear that they see themselves at ground zero in the battle against pessimism, with American White Horse functioning as Idealism Central.
"We'd like to be successful, sure," explains Flores, who is living off savings while he writes. "But that's not as important, really, as just telling stories that are honest. There's not a good supply of honesty in the world these days, and certainly not in Hollywood. We intend to change the way films are made in this country."
A co-author of Long Cut's script, Flores will direct the film side by side with Altieri, in the style of the successful Coen brothers collaboration (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona). Moore, who works as a bartender in his nocturnal "day job," is clearly the producer. Clad in a crisp white shirt and snappy tie, he is handling the administrative tasks of lining up investors, developing a budget, and arranging shooting locations and casting sessions, and he'll work to place the finished product in indie film festivals around the country. He also serves as a liaison between his partner's creative ideals and more mundane, cash-driven concerns.
"We do plan on being picked up by Miramax," Moore says, rising to answer the telephone. "Art is important, telling honest stories is important, but we intend for the movie to be seen. We want it to make money."
"There's no way it's not going to make money," Flores asserts. "I think you have to have your roots and your foundation right. If you do that, there's no way it's not going to be successful."
UNLIKE INDIE LEGENDS Kevin Smith (the writer and director of Clerks and Chasing Amy) and Richard Linklater (creator of Slackers and Dazed and Confused), whose early films were all dark, urban comedies crammed with references to television and comic books, the American White Horse team plan to make their feature debut with a deeply emotional, distinctly rural drama.
Long Cut chronicles an unlikely friendship between a mute, traumatized young girl and the gentle, monosyllabic ex-convict who tends the horses on her grandfather's once-thriving ranch.
Subplots involve the grandfather's fight to save his land from developers, and the arrival of the ranch hand's one-time prison buddies, heavily tattooed brothers named Dreamboat and Curly.
"We're going for a Hemingway, Faulkner kind of feel," grins Altieri, who wrote the story on which the script is based.
"There's some Steinbeck there, too," adds Flores, who goes on to describe the film as being "very Latino-based in its imagery, with faint, faint touches of magical realism, though, you know, not with flute music behind it or anything.
"We grew up in a rough neighborhood in South San Francisco," Flores continues, referring to himself and Altieri, friends who met in high school.
"Half of the place was Hispanic and the other half were jailbirds."
"We grew up on the wrong side of the tracks," Altieri says. "But the guys that I hung out with were very honest. That was very important to us. And if you had a chance to help a young girl [as in Long Cut], you'd damn well better do it. And we've always talked about making a story where the hero isn't a hero, but still does good things. But we didn't want to glorify him," Altieri stresses. "He's still a loser.
"We're certainly not unfamiliar with the characters in the film," he laughs. "We got into a lot of fights, growing up. Fortunately for us, art directed us away from that kind of lifestyle."
The film, whose current budget is in what Altieri cautiously terms the "low six-figures," will be financed through a combination of the trio's own savings, bank loans, and an assortment of local investors led by Petaluma businessman Tom Baker, owner of the Baker Street Bar & Grill.
The lead male has tentatively been cast with an L.A.-based actor, Altieri says, though they'd prefer to use local talent for the rest of the parts. According to Moore, offers have been pouring in from businesses and property owners eager to help, and they've already found most of their shooting locations.
"We could shoot it now," Altieri says. "But we're still looking for investors. Obviously, the more money we raise, the better the film will look."
But the American White Horse business plan extends beyond merely making films. There's also that part about changing the way films are made.
"Our plan is to someday have a film school, right here," Altieri explains. "As the business grows, we'll abandon sleeping quarters to install editing rooms and classrooms. We want a place where people like us, people with no money but a desire to make good films, can go and learn. A place where the excitement of making films can thrive."
"I've taken enough film classes in college to know that filmmakers must avoid traditional film schools," Flores adds. "They teach theory. They teach math. They're not teaching passion. They're not teaching creativity. It's what's in your heart that ends up on the screen. That's what we want people to get."
"I'm not content to have people look at back at us someday and say, 'They made some pretty good movies,'" concludes Altieri, glancing out toward the trailer, perhaps envisioning the sprawling operation that may some day take its place.
"I want them to say, 'That was a perfect movie, flawless, no mistakes. They never sold out.'"
Actors are invited to audition for Long Cut. Send a head shot and résumé to Mitchell Altieri, American White Horse Pictures, 1877 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma, CA 94952. Deadline is Jan. 15.
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From the Dec. 4-10, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.